The left wing in France since 1945 has never been a unified political force. Instead, it has been a divided and pluralistic political community, accommodating both Communists who take on the mantle of the Jacobin left, and far more liberal groups such as the Green Party. With such diversity within an ideological wing, it has been natural for a strong party representing a particular vein of left wing thought to dominate the bloc.
The traditional leader of French left-wing thought in the twentieth century was the Communist party, yet within just twelve years of the formation of the Parti Socialiste in 1969, these inheritors of the Jacobin legacy had been all but sidelined in French government, replaced by the new Socialist party. In this short time, the Parti Socialiste established itself as the dominant political party in the French left, a role that it maintains to this day.
Any explanation of its predominance must examine the causes of the meteoric rise of the Parti Socialiste and also the reasons for the sudden apparent collapse of Communism as the main party of the French left, for the reversal in the respective party political roles of the two groups is inextricably linked in any explanation of Socialist Party dominance. This dramatic and rapid shift in party fortunes occurred in France as a result of many combined factors. A superficial examination of the political systems of the Western world might very well lead us to assumes that Communism had simply become an unacceptable ideology in the modern age.
This argument certainly has some validity, as the increasing wealth of the Western world and the continuing antagonism between the Communist Soviet Union and the democratically organised capitalist West exerted a powerful influence on all post-war political thought in the West. Thus, as the Cold War continued, it can be assumed that those living in Western countries such as France no longer felt inclined to offer their support for a domestic political party that based its policies around the same ideological framework as the USSR.
In France, this process of disenchantment with Communism was exacerbated by the close links that the French Communist Party had with the Russian government in Moscow. However, such a model is rather too simplistic for an explanation of the dominance of the socialist party. It fails to consider or explain why it was only in 1978 that the Parti Socialiste overtook the Communist Party as the main party of the left. By 1978, the Cold War had been in progress for a long time, and the French populace had shown no desire to abandon Communism during earlier tensions with the USSR.
Furthermore, this explanation does not consider the role of the Parti Socialiste itself in establishing a strong basis of support in previously Communist sections of the electorate. Instead of a generalised contextual historic explanation, we must refer to the endeavours of the Parti Socialiste itself in its rise to political predominance in the left wing. An understanding of the formation of the Parti Socialiste does, however, require an historic context.
The PS was formed in the wake of the May 1968 movement, when student protests had spurred an examination of the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Furthermore, the May movement shifted the emphasis in the left wing from revolutionary ideology to a more evolutionary approach. The Communist Party failed to fully resolve its internal debate over which approach could be reconciled with their ideology. This created a gap in the French left for a new party that could exploit the demand for a left wing ideology that could be more easily accommodated within a democratic country.
The Communists had in many ways not been to blame for this failure, as they had been at a disadvantage from the beginning of the Fifth Republic. The nature of the constitutional framework established by the Fifth Republic made it difficult for the Communists to ever gain major representation in the Parliament and impossible for them to gain the Presidency. With such entrenched constitutional handicaps for the Communist Party, it was only a matter of time before another party rose in the left wing to try and use the systems of the Fifth Republic more effectively for left-wing ends.
Party's that are closer to the centre benefit under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, and this was to be a tactical advantage that would be enjoyed by the PS over the Communists. However, this by no means made the success of the Parti Socialiste inevitable. Instead, it was through clever manipulation of the political system and delicate playing of left wing party politics that the Parti Socialiste made its name. Once the Parti Socialiste had been established it achieved very considerable successes within a short period of time.
This rapid advance itself added to the party's potential for future triumphs. Not only did the speed of the PS ascendancy create an attractive air of political dynamism, it also equipped the Party Socialiste with a mastery of the institutions of the Fifth Republic. With a number of Prime Ministers and a far greater number of local officials, the Parti Socialiste soon became a party that had considerable powers of patronage at its disposal. This power was coupled with an important ongoing drive by the party to transform itself into a realist party of government.
In the 1970's, the PS promised to improve the country and alter society itself. By the 1980's this stance was transformed into a series of practical policies, which although less exciting than previous ideological statements represented a new era of pragmatism within the PS that was attractive to more centrist voters. The acceptance of the market economy by the party in the 1980s and the full conversion of the party into a social democratic party marked its full acceptance of pragmatism as a core policy value.
On this basis the PS set about eradicating Marxism as an influence on its policy. This was an important step that set the party apart from the Communists, who still cling to Marxist views. By the 1980s it had become clear that Marxism had lost its intellectual appeal, and Mitterand was wise to clearly separate the PS from associations with Marxist thought. The Parti Socialiste benefited from exterior social shifts that also served to damage the Communist Party. During the 1970s and 1980s the working class, the traditional bedrock of Communist Party support, declined in size significantly.
This matched a general trend in Western society, but in France the shift was magnified by the fact that not only did the actual numbers of working class voters decline, but the number of people who wished to think of themselves as working class fell. The growing stigma attached to being working class, and the links between the working class and the Communist party meant that fewer members of the lower social groups were now prepared to automatically give their vote to the Communists.
Many preferred to give their vote to the less class-specific Parti Socialiste, as it still represented left-wing values but did not carry the attached associations of working class support that the Communist party did. It was not only the decline of the Communists that benefited the Socialist Party, for the Right Wing also experienced a decline in the period of the Parti Socialiste's ascendancy. The Gaullists lost the Presidency in 1974, and fragmentation within the party followed, giving the Parti Socialiste their chance to aim for the Presidency, which they did successfully in 1981.